Wait, that's English Literature, too?

What does it really look like to be British?

When we typically think of English literature, the likes of Austen, Wordsworth, Shakespeare and others whose work evokes the classical English heritage image come to mind. For some, this is the only image they associate with the country, as these canonical native-born authors seem to hold a tight monopoly on what it means to be British. However, as the country becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, modern British authors from multicultural backgrounds are incorporating their unique experience in their work – taking on what are considered postcolonial themes.  

The dismantling of the British Empire, starting in the late 1940s, with countries such as India and Pakistan gaining independence in 1947 and Ghana becoming the first independent British African Colony in 1957, exposed British readers to the lives and perspectives of authors from these newly decolonized countries. They were given the space to incorporate the otherness they felt with being from a country within the Empire, but now living in Britain, and what this change meant for their personal status.  

Vincent Wood writes, ‘Contemporary English literature is often a negotiation between postcolonial themes and notions of British identity, and as such reflects the complexities of modern Britain. This is especially true when a work of literature comes from the perspective of someone raised in the various diaspora communities that make up a large part of modern British society.’ [1]

This semester I have been looking at literature in the context of European colonialism as well as the politics of literature in translation for my ‘Global Voices’ module.  By doing this module, I realised that I was guilty of pigeonholing what I considered to be English heritage. And even though I knew about postcolonial literature, and how the end of the Empire brought new voices to Britain, I didn’t initially think of these authors as a part of the English heritage catalogue. I was confronted with the fact that I still bought into the singular story of the classical British identity when it comes to literature.   

The Lonely Londoners/ Goodreads

The Lonely Londoners/ Goodreads

However, after reading The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon, and having such a strong connection to it – due to my own Caribbean heritage – I finished the novel thinking about my own experience, with being Black British as well as my family’s connection to Britain. Why did my view of Britain almost always appear white?

For so long, I had othered the authors who had come from the various diaspora communities, and I think this is somewhat due to the fact that I hadn’t been exposed to this side of the British history during my school education. Again, it was something that I knew about, but wasn’t well versed in the history of. It was only until I started studying postcolonial literature and European colonialism that I had to challenge my own biases.  

Widening my catalogue for what it means to be British means including immigrant voices to the mix. This is not only important from a writer’s point of view, as I learn and read about different perspectives – but for me personally, as I deserve to see more than one story being told.

I’m done with limiting my literary repertoire to the classical canon and all about appreciating the changing canon of British identity and nature.

by Daniella Ferguson-Djaba 


[1] Vincent Wood, ‘Reflecting Multicultural Britain: Postcolonialism and the Literature of the Diaspora’, The Culture Trip, 15 December 2016